Beijing is going all out in its efforts to rein in terrorism, following the latest attack at a morning street market in Urumqi, which killed at least 43 people and wounded dozens. The bombing in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, has been blamed on five suspects, all Uighurs, the region’s most populous Muslim minority. Police said that the assailants drove two off-road vehicles through crowds at the popular vegetable market in central Urumqi and set off explosives. Four of the attackers were killed in the bombing and the fifth was captured.
The most recent attack was the deadliest in Xinjiang’s recent history, and the latest of several thar are targeting innocent civilians and may represent a change of tactics, as previous attacks were aimed at police and other security officials. Earlier this month, six people were stabbed at a train station in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province in southern China. A similar attack was carried out at the end of April at the Urumqi train station, in an apparent suicide bombing that also killed one other person and wounded 79. The first such attack on a train station occurred in the southwestern city of Kunming in March, when eight assailants, armed with foot-long sabers and believed to be ethnic Uighurs, set upon men and women in the Kunming Railway Station. Twenty-nine people were killed in that attack and another 143 injured. The attacks on train stations followed several scattered incidents involved attacks on policemen in Xinjiang, an alleged plane hijacking, and the crashing of a jeep into pedestrians at Beijing’s Tiananmen Gate in November. The latest attack in Urumqi marks the highest death toll since several days of rioting in Urumqi in 2009 between Uighurs and members of China’s dominant Han ethnic group left nearly 200 people dead.
In response to the attack, police authorities announced yet another security crackdown, although they said those who surrender and offer information about other suspects or criminal activities “will be given minor punishment or exempted from punishment” if they turn themselves in within 30 days. The latest security crackdown has resulted in cancelled vacations for officers and stepped-up patrols at train stations, schools, hospitals and markets.
While offering leniency to suspected terrorists may work in some countries, Beijing will have a hard time convincing its homegrown terrorists that they can trust the state’s promise of leniency and turn themselves in. China has a long history of mistrust and betrayal between its civilian population and those in power, as past campaigns to encourage free speech have quickly turned into crackdowns on internal dissent. Perhaps most famous was The Hundred Flowers Campaign, which in 1956 encouraged citizens to openly express their opinions of the communist regime. The name of the campaign was taken from a famous expression by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong: “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” Yet after a brief period of liberalization, Mao abruptly changed course, cracking down on dissent as part of the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957. Those critical of Mao’s regime and its ideology were publicly criticized and condemned to prison labor camps, with Mao proudly exclaiming he had “enticed the snakes out of their caves.”
Beijing’s reaching out to those with knowledge of past or future terrorist activity smacks of desperation, but is a step that needs to be taken nonetheless. Another necessary step is a loosening of restrictions on the practice of Islam in China. Uighurs have traditionally followed a moderate form of Sufi Islam, but in recent years have increasingly adopted practices more commonly seen in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, such as full-face veils for women. Rights groups claim Beijing has reacted to the increased religiosity by smothering Xinjiang with additional security measures, and imposing restrictions on Uighur travel rights, culture and religious practices. Recent crackdowns have banned students from fasting during Ramadan, restricted religious teaching for children, and put limits on Uighur-language education. Though easing restrictions on the practice of Islam may have little effect on those determined to cause violence and innocent deaths, it may help deter the radicalization of future terrorists and could potentially stem another act of violence involving the deaths of innocent civilians.